This idea that Jesus chose poor, uneducated men as his disciples is entrenched in evangelistic teaching, and was something I heard often growing up in the church, especially during the Easter season.
But is this really true?
The source of this idea is found in Acts 4:13: "When [the religious leaders] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished". While the verse refers to Peter and John and probably had more to do with their lack of religious training than anything else, over the years this description has been applied to the disciples as a whole. (More on the nuances of the Greek words for "unschooled" and "ordinary" can be found here.)
The phrase "unschooled, ordinary men" perpetuates the idea that Jesus traveled in the company of twelve male disciples of questionable abilities (remember those Jesus film parodies?). But when I read through the New Testament, a different picture emerges; one I find to be more engaging and appealing and am guessing you will too.
Here are five things to consider when you hear the word "disciples":
1. Don't assume "disciples" means just the twelve apostles.
As Jesus' ministry grew, his group of followers expanded beyond the "original" twelve. Consider these verses:
Luke 6:13 [Jesus] called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them whom he also designated apostles.
Luke 6:17 He went down with them [the 12 apostles] and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there ....
Luke 19:37 When he came near the place where the road goes down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God...
There are more verses about crowds, but you get the idea.
2. Don't assume "disciples" means only men.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that "as Jesus traveled about...the Twelve were with him, and also some women...Mary (called Magdalene), Joanna (the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household); Susanna; and many others..." (8:1-3).
These women were also present at the crucifixion: "But all those who knew Him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance"(Luke 23:49).
Women were also present with the Apostles after the resurrection. "When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them." (Luke 24:9-10).
Mary and Martha of Bethany should also be counted as disciples, considering the depth of their interactions with Jesus in Luke 10 (Mary sits under Jesus' teaching alongside the men), John 11 (Martha confesses Jesus as the Christ, Mark 14 (Mary anoints Jesus in anticipation of his death) and Luke 24:50-53 (Jesus visits Bethany before he ascends into heaven (Luke 24:50-53). (Read more about why the original twelve apostles were all men.)
3. Don't assume the disciples were all of humble means or uneducated.
Although some of Jesus' disciples may have been poor and uneducated, it is likely that some of them were rich, well-educated, and synagogue-trained. Matthew 9:9 identifies Matthew as a tax collector, so he was probably fluent in the languages spoken in his area (Greek, Latin, Aramaic).
Colossians 4:14 tells us that Luke was educated as a doctor. Luke 8:3 states that Joanna was the wife of Herod's steward, so she would have lived a comfortable lifestyle on the palace grounds. Luke 23:50 describes Joseph of Arimathea as a member of the Sanhedrin. The fact that he was able to provide a tomb for Jesus indicates he had some wealth.
4. Women disciples helped start the early Church.
Acts 1:12-14 tells us that the group "joined together constantly in prayer" included the apostles "along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers." Women were also present at Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke in tongues (Acts 2:1-4, 17-18). As Peter reminds the crowd, "on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophesy".
The narrative indicates that women were included when it came to making leadership decisions. For example, in Acts 1 they helped the group choose a replacement for Judas.
5. Women disciples filled leadership roles in the early Church.
Acts 16, 1 Corinthians 1, and Colossians 4 reference house church leaders who were women (Lydia, Chloe, Nympha). Acts 22:4 and Romans 16:7 tell us that women were persecuted and imprisoned for their involvement in the Jesus movement.
There is something appealing about the idea of twelve ordinary, uneducated men starting something as extraordinary as the Church. But it's even more appealing to think that God chose to use men and women with differing backgrounds, education, and social standing.